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27th May 2022

Feature

Nationalists as much a threat to EU arts as resources

  • 'The battle of Europe is not being fought with tank and missiles but with ideas, narratives,' André Wilkens, the director of the European Cultural Foundation, told EU Scream (Photo: m4tik)

Europe's cultural narrative is increasingly dominated by the continent's new authoritarians.

Hungary under its autocratic prime minister Viktor Orbán spends around three times as much on culture as any other EU country compared to the size of its economy.

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Germany has a prominent far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, that threatens the arts and free expression.

And in Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party stuffs cultural institutions with appointees who support a crude nationalism.

"The battle of Europe is being fought not with tank and missiles but with ideas, narratives," André Wilkens, the director of the European Cultural Foundation, told EU Scream.

Once in power, nationalist populist seek to "get rid of people who have a free spirit and don't perform according to their sort of policies, and then you have a situation when you can actually change the whole cultural infrastructure of a country," Wilkens said last month in Amsterdam.

Under Wilkens, the foundation — created after the Second World War to help heal the continent's wounds — has stepped up grant-making to arts and media that aim to strengthen democracy at another pivotal moment for Europe.

Mainstream forces risked ceding significant parts of the continent's cultural agenda to nationalist populists, suggested Wilkens, who expressed concern that European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen had broken with recent practice by not creating a commissionership with culture in its job title.

For "people who want to change things, culture is a hard issue," said Wilkens. "For the people who are complacent, it's a soft issue," said Wilkens.

In recent days, the Flemish region of Belgium has faced a barrage of criticism for using culture to reinforce what arts professionals see as an overtly-nationalist agenda.

The outcry came after Jan Jambon, the region's prime minister and culture minister, slashed arts funding while favouring continued investment in Flemish heritage such as cathedrals and paintings.

"Culture is in the DNA of the Flemish," Jambon wrote in a policy note. The goal was to "put new emphasis on maximising the social, personal and economic value of culture," he wrote.

The cuts leave "a weakened sector," Leen Laconte, the director of oKo, a federation for arts professionals in Flanders and Brussels, said in a statement.

Laconte said her organisation's membership had not been consulted in advance about the cuts, which include grants and projects where funds would be reduced by 60 percent in 2020 compared to the current year.

"For Jan Jambon, art is only relevant as a showy showpiece for a nationalist Flanders," Tom De Meester, a spokesman for the leftist Labor Party of Belgium, or PVDA, said in response to the plan. "Critical and innovative artists must give in and remain silent."

In Hungary, the government devoted 3.5 percent of GDP to culture in 2017 compared with a figure of 1.1 percent across the bloc's 28 member states, according to a Eurostat report issued in March.

The Eurostat report does not say where Hungary is spending the money nor does it comment on why Hungary ranked highest; the figures also include categories like broadcasting and publishing and religious services.

Even so, experts say the figures illustrate the determination of the ruling Fidesz party, led by Orbán, to stamp its illiberal agenda on the country.

"You only have to hear Orbán saying that this is a new era, and that this era has a special artistic and cultural reality," said Tere Badia, the secretary general of Culture Action Europe, a network of cultural organisations in Brussels.

"Combinations in between right-wing policy and culture are very, very, very dangerous," said Badia, adding that a priority for Budapest is establishing cultural institutions that hew to the government's nationalist narrative.

In Poland, arts professionals already were under pressure from conservative sections of Polish society before the right-wing Law and Justice party won an overall majority in 2015.

Since then, Piotr Gliński, the country's deputy prime minister and culture minister, has further squeezed free expression, including in the vibrant theatre sector.

One of Gliński's tactics has been the withdrawal of subsidies from festivals that stage works by the maverick Croatian director Oliver Frljić, or from festivals that merely involve him. Plays by Frljić have infuriated authorities by featuring sharp satire directed at leading figures from the Catholic Church and the Law and Justice party.

As a result, some audiences have had to pay dramatically higher ticket prices, a situation that represents "a kind of dangerous example of privatising a public performance," said Marta Keil, who has co-curated festivals and runs a performing arts institute in Poland.

The management of Polish museums, particularly those that deal with the Second World War and the extermination of the country's Jewish population, is another major concern, said Keil. "There's a huge attempt at rewriting the history" in favour of nationalist narratives, she said.

Asked about the lack of a commissioner in Brussels explicitly tasked with overseeing culture across the European Union, Keil said arts professionals felt increasingly abandoned.

"We are really very afraid of getting isolated again," said Keil, referring to the period Poland spent under communism. "If the EU will not see culture as one of the important fields of its action, we kind of leave all the tools to build a narrative to the right-wing and alt-right movements, as they do have support, they do have money," she said.

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